Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tentative Thoughts on Witherington and Whether Jesus Was an Apocalyptic Prophet

What stood out to me in my latest reading of The Christology of Jesus was Ben Witherington III's discussion on page 194 about whether or not Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.

Witherington believes that Jesus' worldview had apocalyptic elements, such as the notion that Satan fell from heaven and possibly parts of Mark 13.  But, in an overall sense, Witherington doubts that Jesus had an apocalyptic worldview, which Witherington defines as "a view that the world's end was necessarily imminent and that this world's structures were so inherently corrupt and evil that they were unredeemable" (page 194).  Why?  First, Jesus presumed the "ongoing existence" of the family.  Second, Jesus did not "condemn Roman rule or taxation", which "does not comport" with the view that Satanically-supported empires are afflicting God's people.  Third, Jesus is not calling for "perseverance until some future time when God will act", but rather is "proclaiming good news that God is even now intervening in history."  Fourth, Jesus' parables resemble wisdom literature, not apocalyptic literature.

But Witherington does acknowledge that eschatology was a significant feature of Jesus' message.  Does that mean that Witherington acknowledges that Jesus believed in an impending eschaton, or end-times intervention by God to overthrow evil and set up his kingdom?  Perhaps not, for Witherington on page 193 states that, in eschatology, there can be a long denouement after the crucial events.  Witherington states that the messianic age preceding the end of the world is "an age that in the relevant Jewish literature can last for a considerable period of time before the 'end of the world' (cf. Syr. Baruch 24-30, 4 Ezra 7.29f., 1 Enoch 91-93)" (page 193).  Could Revelation 20 fit that category, even though it is Christian literature?  It envisions the Messiah and certain saints ruling for a thousand years, before the last judgment and the new heavens and the new earth.  I guess the question then would be: When is the millennium?  Will it be a future event, or did it start with the resurrection of Christ?  I tend to go with the former, but amillennialists and post-millennialists go with the latter, as they treat Christ's millennial rule as more spiritual than something literal and physical on earth.

Witherington believes that John the Baptist was proclaiming an impending wrath, however.  For Witherington, was that an eschatological wrath that would immediately precede a new beginning and renewal?  Or was it simply the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., which was not followed by renewal?

Regarding Witherington's reasons that Jesus did not have an apocalyptic worldview, I am not entirely convinced by them.  I think a case can be made that Jesus and the early church thought that the end was near.  The family would be ongoing and would cause Christians trouble, until the end.  Jesus did not condemn Roman rule or taxation, but that could be because he believed that the fulfillment of God's kingdom was imminent, and so why worry about whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans?  (Witherington likewise says that Jesus regarded taxation as unimportant in light of God's kingdom, but my impression is that Witherington does not define God's kingdom as God soon bringing the present world system to an end.)  Jesus did exhort his disciples to endure until the end.  And, while Jesus did preach good news that God even now was intervening in history, and Jesus most likely saw the Kingdom of God as present in his own ministry, that does not preclude him believing that God would soon bring the present world order to an end.  Perhaps Jesus believed that he was starting the process of ending Satanic dominion over the earth, a process that God would soon complete.  And that is good news, for those who repent.  Is this totally like Jewish apocalyptic?  Not necessarily, but maybe Jesus drew from elements of apocalyptic while diverging from apocalyptic in areas.

I write this, however, not knowing Witherington's overall views regarding Jesus' eschatology.  Witherington wrote a book on that subject, which I have, but I haven't read it yet.  Plus, I have more of The Christology of Jesus to read.  So there is some speculation on my part about what Witherington thinks.

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